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Zombies are at a low ebb in terms of popularity, so why are there so many zombie video games in the works?

If you’ve been following our E3 2018 coverage on Twitter, then first of all, I’d like to apologise. We were quite jetlagged and pretty tired, and the brain does funny things when it’s stressed out. If you found it funny, then that probably says more about you than us, but rest assured, we’ll be going back to sensible tweeting schedules now that E3 is over.

That being said, if you have been following our coverage, you’d probably have seen something of a recurring theme to this year’s event: zombies.

It’s a surreal thing to find in 2018. For starters, the TV series that re-ignited the public’s interest in zombies in the first place – AMC’s The Walking Dead – is hemorrhaging viewers and struggling with its pacing and identity. Rumours say that Andrew Lincoln, Rick Grimes himself, will be leaving the show at the end of next season, while (very much dead character) Shane’s actor, Jon Bernthal, has been spotted on set. Presumably jumping a shark, or something. Its spin-off series, Fear the Walking Dead, is faring a little better, but the public appetite for shambling corpses appears to be waning.

Yet at E3, one of the world’s largest video game events, you wouldn’t know it. There were a lot of zombie video games.

Not all of them are explicitly referred to as “zombies” of course. In The Walking Dead they’re “walkers”; in Days Gone they’re “freakers”; in The Last of Us Part II they’re simply “the infected”. You can dance around the terminology and canon all you like to try and make your product sound unique, but much like the monkey-rage-virus-infected humans in 28 Days Later, we all know exactly what they are.

In total, we saw eight “big ticket” games at this year’s E3 that featured zombies, or some manner of formerly human, reanimated corpses analogous with the zombie trope. Three of them – The Last of Us Part II, Days Gone, and the Resident Evil 2 Remake – were shown by Sony alone. We also saw Metro: Exodus (another one where there aren’t technically zombies, but there may as well be), Dying Light 2, Doom Eternal, and of course, The Walking Dead games from both Telltale and Overkill.

There were others – like Rebellion’s Strange Brigade, which features all manner of undead enemies in a pithy, Saturday matinee way – and any number of games outside the horror genre (like RPGs) that featured some sort of undead enemy type. EA’s Plants vs. Zombies 2 was also shown at their EA Play event.

It wasn’t limited to the press conferences, behind-closed-doors press meetings, and demo stations, however. Much like any good zombie infection, E3’s was pervasive, pernicious, and spread fast: zombie actors were everywhere.

In order to get into the Dying Light 2 demo, we had to sneak past a group of infected who, frankly, scared the crap out of us (and then were chased out of the demo room with a bright light – a nice touch, to be fair). Similarly, you had to wend your way through real life zombies to get into the Resident Evil 2 area, while just outside the main attraction, as many people queued to have their photo taken with zombies in a crashed Raccoon City PD cop car as waited to see the game itself. Zombies were bumbling around the meeting room as we waited to play Overkill’s The Walking Dead, and this poor chap – on his way to that meeting room at the same time as us – had to stay in character up a massive flight of stairs:

To a certain extent, this is fine. If you queue up to see a Resident Evil game, you should probably be expecting a few scares, but the zombie actors weren’t just tethered to their events. Like heroic stairs zombie, they were shambling around every corner of the LA Convention Center.

Mostly, that was posing for photos near their respective games or in the foyer areas. But occasionally, you’d turn around and find one breathing heavily and gnashing their teeth near your neck, or – intentionally or otherwise – bumping into you as you rounded a corner or weaved through a tight gap between exhibit paraphernalia. There were a few people genuinely frightened by these real-world jump scares, and plenty more who seemed distressed at their mere presence. As mentioned before: zombies at a zombie game stand are fine, but you don’t want them scaring the crap out of you as you queue up to check out Ninjala.

Though there was some buzz around the Resident Evil 2 Remake and Dying Light 2 is looking like a solid progression for the series, we didn’t run into a single person who listed any of these zombie games as their game of the show. So people didn’t really like the zombie actors, nor were they singing the praises of the games – why are video games still so reliant on zombies?

It’s because they’re easy.

When you see a zombie, the reaction is immediate and consistent: this is something to be afraid of. This is something we’ve been trained to feel ever since George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, way back in 1968, and while the writers can call their zombies whatever they like, we all know the rules off pat: go for the head; don’t get bitten; one or two are manageable, but if there’s too many, run.

This deep-grained, instant gut reaction is something marketers could spend a fortune on and never achieve, but the mythos is so widespread and consistent that we all just get it. It’s like black and yellow stripes on a wasp, or the red glow of something too hot to touch.

More than that, however, is the knowledge that zombies are an easy analogue for humans themselves, with none of the moral quiverings associated. You feel no compunction for shooting a zombie, or setting it alight, or beating its head in with a bat because – thanks to that in-built conditioning over decades of zombies in popular media – we know that they’re not human any more. They’re most definitely ex-human, to bastardise a popular Monty Python sketch. And that gives you a free pass to dismember and destroy without all the unpleasantness of killing actual people.

They’re Untermensch.

It’s not just zombies, however. Video games have a long history of relying on some form of Untermensch – literally sub or less than human creatures – to serve as enemies, antagonists, and general fodder for our cannons. The locust and lambent in Gears of War; the flood in Halo; the ghouls and super mutants in Fallout; the splicers and Big Daddies in BioShock. Each one of these serves as a human surrogate, some form of humanoid monster that is very distinctly not human – through one contrivance or another – which allows you to kill something human-shaped without remorse. All of the human-killing action, none of the guilt.

Perhaps the issue isn’t that video games are too reliant on zombies, after all. Perhaps the issue is that video games are too reliant on killing, and zombies are simply the easy answer to the question, “how do we make this less uncomfortable for everyone involved?”

A note from the Thumbsticks editorial team

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Tom Baines

Tom is an itinerant freelance technology writer who found a home as an Editor with Thumbsticks. Powered by coffee, RPGs, and local co-op.

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